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Valley Perspective

Reflections on the Road to D.C.

Freshman congressman and lifelong pal ponder life's twists and turns as they drive a van cross- country to the capital.

March 02, 1997|JAMES E. ROGAN | Rep. James E. Rogan represents the 27th Congressional District

After the heady experience of winning a seat in the U.S. Congress in November, I assumed there would be time to recover and recharge from the intense 15-month campaign. Nothing was further from the truth. In addition to new-member orientation, there were offices and an apartment to close and the daunting decision of where--and how--my family would live.

I never doubted the wisdom of moving my wife, Christine, and our 4-year-old twin daughters, Dana and Claire, to Washington. At least that way, we could see each other most days, and I would be free to focus on constituent concerns when at home in California. With time short, I rented sight unseen a small furnished apartment, and packed. Rather than ask my future Capitol staff to drive a rental van cross-country, I decided to do it myself.

I would not be alone on the road: Frank Ambrose, my friend since junior high school, would accompany me. This trip would be, in Yogi Berra's words, "deja vu all over again." When I was in law school, Frank and I drove to Atlanta and back in 1983. We bickered, reminisced about stealing each other's girlfriends and laughed most of the way. Coming home, in an Oklahoma City motel, Frank got a little bossy: He wouldn't get out of bed one day so we could hit the road.

"Get it straight," he sarcastically said to me that morning. "I'm the oldest, so we leave when I say, or you leave alone."

Knowing Frank respected strength, I left--alone! I never did ask how he got home to Los Angeles, and this was not the time.

*

On Dec. 28, a Saturday, Frank and a few friends stood in the rain with me as we loaded the 15-foot van, then strapped my car to the heavy trailer. We finished late in the afternoon, dirty, soaked and tired. There was no time to rest; we were leaving at 6 that night.

I kissed Christine and the girls goodbye; Frank started the van's engine. From out of nowhere neighbors began approaching the truck. Christine and I had moved into our house the day after our honeymoon almost 10 years ago; these are the folks who saw me go from a young deputy district attorney to judge to legislator to Assembly majority leader to congressman, and from bachelor to husband to father. With tears and hugs, they said goodbye. Although we would be back often, there was a melancholy sense that things would not be the same.

As the truck rolled slowly down the darkened street, a terrible pang went through my heart. For the first time I felt doubt and uncertainty over what I was doing.

My eyes began to glisten. "Franko," I muttered, "why the hell have I done this?"

Not one to suffer whining lightly, Frank cut me no sympathy slack.

"Hey, jackass," he snarled. Frank pointed to the truck's passenger side mirror and motioned for me to look. There, illuminated under a street light, was the reflected silhouette of Christine, Dana and Claire.

"That's why you're doing this," Frank said. "So shut up and go serve your country."

I smiled, my resolve again steeled. I started to thank Frank for the emotional shot in the arm, but he would have none of that.

"You know," he interrupted, "this is going to be a long, slow drive. I don't want to hear you whimpering all the way to Washington.

"By the way," he said with a grin, "we'll be going through Oklahoma City. If there is any more sniveling in this truck, we just may have to stop . . . and pay that town another visit."

*

The notion of driving across America on my way to Congress had a certain romantic appeal. Soaking up the spacious skies, fruited plains and amber waves of grain seemed an appropriate preface to my induction into office. I wanted to savor and absorb each mile while I reflected upon my forthcoming responsibilities.

Contemplating this, I neglected to calculate Frank's lack of appreciation for such melodrama. To him there was nothing "romantic" about a cramped truck cab, sleeping in a sitting position, no radio and stacks of ill-tied boxes tumbling when the brakes were applied. Frank did not see the road as poetry. It was big game to be bagged and conquered. He fancied himself some incarnation of an interstate great white hunter. He viewed motels, showers and sleep as a sign of weakness.

"We're driving nonstop to Washington," Frank said. "When I drive, you sleep. When you drive, I sleep."

"Just remember," he added with a smirk. "I'm the oldest, and I'm captain of this ship. You may be in Congress, but in this truck, I'm big daddy."

And so it was to be. Other than pulling over for gasoline about every 150 miles, gobbling down the greasiest of fast food and visiting an occasional restroom, we drove nonstop. Frank would not break.

*

It was dark when we left Glendale. We took Interstate 210 to the I-10 near Pomona. After a brief northern jaunt through the San Bernardino Forest up Highway 15, we connected before midnight near Barstow onto I-40 eastbound.

"Take a good look around," Frank said. "You won't see another freeway for a long time." He was right. We would remain on I-40 for almost 2,000 miles.

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